In an open letter to President Obama that ran earlier this month, Maria Rodale, CEO and chairman of Rodale Inc., discussed the conflict in Syria. “Yes, Syria has undoubtedly used chemical weapons on its own people,” Rodale wrote in the letter, which ran on HuffintonPost.com. “But here’s what I know for sure: We are no better. We have been using chemical weapons on our own children—and ourselves—for decades, the chemical weapons we use in agriculture to win the war on pests, weeds and the false need for ever-greater yields. While the effects of these ‘legal’ chemical weapons might not be immediate and direct, they are no less deadly.”
Rodale may have calculated that she’s the boss and needed to communicate her message regarding the use of chemicals in the U.S. Fair enough. But the letter was not so well-received. A writer at discovermagazine.com, for example, called it “insensitive crack-pottery.”
It’s a safe bet to say that’s not the kind of reaction Rodale was hoping for. And in that lies a PR lesson.
“Anything that a CEO is putting out, in any form, becomes media fodder,” said Chuck Tanowitz, VP of public relations and editorial services at HB Agency. C-level execs and senior managers, Tanowitz added, are “on all the time, so they need to be trained and need people around them, listening to what their saying and providing constant feedback.”
Part of the problem in media training of corporate executives these days is that executives tend to think that if they sit down once, maybe twice a year for some media training, they can check that box and move on. But it doesn’t work that way.
The blowback occurs when a senior executive sits down with a reporter for an interview and is ill prepared for any tough questions and fails to articulate any messages that would benefit the brand.
A REGULAR GIG
“There is that, ‘Come in and have media training’ mindset,” Tanowitz said. “But what we’re trying to do is, there’s the [raining first but then there’s a constant-feedback loop that’s continuing, just as if the executive is having a constant-feedback-loop with reporters.”
The feedback that PR people provide needs to be baked into the media-interview process, so after the interview is complete, the PR exec and the senior manager can deconstruct the interview to identify what went right and wrong.
“As a PR person, if you’re not sitting there taking notes and giving that feedback right away, then you’re not confident enough to get on the phone with the CEO and say, ‘You know you really messed up this question.’”
To convince C-level execs about the value of regular media training, Tanowitz recommended three tips for how PR pros can improve the practice.
1. Reverse the way the executive would be inclined to answer questions. Many C-level execs like to build up their answers and then present a conclusion. But by that time, the reporter’s eyes may have glazed over. Start with the conclusion and then back into the supporting material.
2. Reporters are not out “to get” C-level execs, added Tanowitz. PR execs need to persuade senior managers that it’s OK to come back to comments they may have made early in the interview, but don’t feel have been fleshed out enough.
3. Learn from every interaction with the media. Chatting with reporters offers senior execs the opportunity to refine their overall message.
For the last several years, the norm in media training has been to videotape a practice media interview that PR pros and senior mangers can then deconstruct to see how the executive appeared before the camera.
But in a digital age, that is no longer be good enough to gauge how the executive performed or whether the message will truly resonate.
“Now, we take the video and do a mock up of how it would appear on a website or on top of a blog-message stream and who might comment,” said Jerry Doyle, principal at CommCore Consulting Group. “If you look at who follows reporters—which could be customers, a professional audience or advocates—you’re going to get different reactions to the quotes.”
By conducing a mock-up of the interview and seeing how it will fly online, “You can find out how that message was received and whether it needs additional modifications to increase the likelihood that the media and other people understand the true message,” Doyle added. “It may be just a shift in emphasis.” PRN
Jerry Doyle, firstname.lastname@example.org; Chuck Tanowitz, email@example.com.
‘Mind Mapping’ to Chart Your Media Interviews
Too often, PR execs rely solely on linear approaches when they prepare spokespeople for media interviews. For example, fact sheets, exhaustive Q&A documents and loads of research and analytics tend to take up a lot of the bandwidth. Even the cornerstone of preparation—the Key Message Document—is formatted as statements and bullets or a column-and-row grid. The problem is that we’re chiseling out a series of square pegs to fit into several round and odd-shaped holes.
That’s because media interviews do not progress in a linear fashion. Studying research, bulleted facts and data organized in columns and rows do not properly prepare us for the winding road that is the media interview.
Enter the Mind Mapping media preparation technique. As depicted in the graphic below, a Mind Map is a collection of satellite bubbles tethered to a central bubble spread out in non-linear array. The map would be populated by the main theme in the center, with supporting key message points surrounding it. The strongest map also includes several other bubbles that represent the categories of challenging or off-topic questions that you and your client can anticipate.
Once complete, the spokesperson is able to “see” the entire interview before it even takes place. He or she can use this very visual technique to find a way back to the main message points, no matter where the conversation starts or how it progresses.
The map becomes the centerpiece of the rehearsals—which are critical—to adequately prepare a spokesperson. What is revealed are vital themes that need to be baked into the map, the weight likely put on certain parts of the map and new routes to return to key messages.
For print or online (non-video) interviews, the map can actually be used during the interview. During an interview there’s no shame in glancing at notes and referring to a one-page map. It certainly beats sifting through reams of documents to find that talking point gem. Stick with the map.
Jerry Doyle is principal at CommCore Consulting Group.
This article appeared in the September 23 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.